Moorhead Art Studio is World of Whimsy

Artist Emily Williams Wheeler creates her whimsical paintings in her Studio E in the former Lincoln School on Moorhead’s north side. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Bright. Playful. Whimsical.

“’Whimsical’ – how I used to hate that word!” Emily Williams-Wheeler asserts, shaking her carrot-red curls and laughing. “It sounded so degrading, like I painted little fairies.

“But now I am happy to say it. I embrace my whimsy! That’s what people are looking for when they come to me … something that’s bright and creative and free.”

Emily has made a splash all across the community. When you cruise down Broadway in Fargo, you pass under her four-seasons trees on the windows of the skyway. Her art bedecks utility boxes along Moorhead and Fargo streets. Her art is featured in an installation at Dorothy Dodds Elementary School. At West Acres, children play in Recess West within walls brightened with an 155-foot mural, and Santa’s Wonderland was born in her imagination … not to mention dozens of homes where Emily’s vibrant paintings and three-dimensional works bring color, smiles and energy.

And whimsy.

For the past three years, the dynamic professional artist has buzzed around her bright, comfortable workspace, Studio e, in Moorhead’s repurposed Lincoln School. She shares the building with Theatre B, a personal trainer and the music studio that’s home to the Front Fenders. Here she paints and creates her prolific works, as well as welcomes some 50 young people to weekly art classes.

All of this, she says, would come as a big surprise to those who knew her growing up in Iowa.

“I was all about math and science. My mother was an artist, so I shunned that,” she recalls. “I was going to break the glass ceiling and be an engineer.”

But when she enrolled in engineering classes at Iowa State University, surprise! “I hated it,” she says, shaking her head. “I just hated it. I ended up walking across campus to the College of Design, where I earned my degree in interior design.”

She did paint … dorm rooms, that is, as a summer job. That’s where she met husband John Wheeler, who had completed his degree in meteorology. She laughs about their style differences: “I’m a doer, and John works at his own pace. People used to say I could paint a whole room while he did the closet.”

The two clicked. Shortly after John accepted the job he still holds at WDAY-TV, they were married and she joined him in Fargo.

This is not a woman who likes to sit still: During several years at home with their two children – Maggie, now 30, and Cameron, 25 — she illustrated, wrote and published six gift books (now out of print); created and sold greeting cards; made jewelry; and hand-lettered wedding invitations and greeting cards. “It was all fun,” she notes, “but I couldn’t make any money from that.” With her kids in school, she reentered the workforce as assistant to the director of the FM Communiversity and a sales associate with Minnesota Public Radio. But art pulled her back.

Fifteen years ago, she began offering art classes for youngsters, an initiative that has grown into a weekly program of semi-private sessions for kids from 6 to 18. Their focus, she says, is “art enrichment and creative thinking. We don’t have a curriculum. They get to explore so much. I’ll show them art techniques or we’ll talk about a subject, but they work on their own projects at their own pace.” This year’s sessions just wrapped up at Studio e.

Endowed with boundless energy, Emily invests the same level of attention in the business side of her enterprise that she brings to art. She sells her big, brilliantly colored paintings through her own website, along with accepting commissions for homes and businesses. Her vividly colorful paintings range from measured abstracts to freeform shapes and squiggles, all imbued with a sense of humor. Sheep are a favorite figurative subject, dyed improbable hues and christened with titles like “Ewe’ve Got Attitude.”

Emily also builds cups, saucers and bowls of clay at home, bakes them in her kiln and then decorates them with the same wild, playful shapes, squiggles and intense colors that have become a sort of signature of her work. She sells them online and at the Rourke Art Gallery and Museum. “I’d love to have another show there,” she adds parenthetically, “but I don’t have any paintings for one.” Yes, pretty much everything she paints already hangs on patrons’ walls.

Looking back, Emily celebrates the discoveries and new directions that have propelled her through an unexpected career. “I used to be embarrassed I wasn’t going to be an engineer,” she admits. “When I told people what I did, I’d put ‘just’ in front of it – ‘just an artist.’

“I used to be embarrassed I didn’t have an art degree. Not now. I’m proud that I’m self-taught. I’m a professional artist and a good businesswoman. I always want to learn new things and try new things.”

Her advice to other artists is as straightforward as the woman herself. “You’ve got to be willing to work your ass off,” she says simply. “No one truly needs art to survive. But wouldn’t life be awful without it?”

For more information, visit Emily’s websites: emilywilliamswheeler.com and studioefargo.com, as well as her page on Facebook.

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